Late last year, Ashley Bickerton revealed on Instagram that he had been diagnosed with ALS, the debilitating motor-neuron condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which has left the artist wheelchair-bound at his home and studio on the island of Bali in Indonesia. For those who followed the Neo-Geo artist’s unorthodox career path, the news added an unexpected emotional charge to the recent works on view in “Seascapes at the End of History” at Lehmann Maupin, and certain earlier pieces featured at O’Flaherty’s, both in New York. Born in Barbados, raised in Hawaii and along the California coast, and embraced in New York during his 1980s stint here, Bickerton departed the city for good in 1993, and since then has employed the visual vocabulary of an islander, one centered on the sea. His recent sculptures and wall reliefs, ostensibly meditations on the fragility of the oceans, now suggest in personal as well as metaphorical terms a quest for human survival.
Among these are two large sculptures, Mangrove Footprints 1 (2021) and Floating Family Footprints (Flow Tide) 1 (2022), imaginative life rafts made of resin, fiberglass, and steel in sandy tones, leaning against the wall as if ready for emergency use as sea levels rise. The decks’ surfaces seem to bear traces of bare feet in the sand. It is not surprising to learn that Floating Family Footprints (Flow Tide) 1 was the first work the artist completed after his diagnosis, as it evokes a classic, romanticized image of companionship and mobility. The large object (more than five feet tall and seven feet wide) intimates a family stroll on the beach, containing the parallel footprints of the artist, his wife, and their daughter embedded in layers of clear resin, with a wavy surface and glimmering sheen, apparently encapsulating a shallow wave that has just washed over the surface. But with their dull brown hues and militaristic steel components, the life rafts might also conjure a far more grave, less personal image of refugees trying to cross the sea toward a better life.
A similar split in emotions, alternately playful and tragic, seems to guide the “Vector” series of wall reliefs, including River Vector: White and River Vector: Big White (both 2022). Each of these vitrine-like constructions, recalling a shallow aquarium, features bits of colorful plastic junk and other flotsam collected from the beach, fixed to a mirrored panel set behind glass and etched with delicate, sinuous lines alluding to ocean currents or streams. In Bickerton’s idiosyncratic manner, the colorful pieces of junk enliven the compositions in playful sweeps and swirls like aquatic confetti, or artificial fish.
Also on view are various additions to Bickerton’s “Ocean Chunk” series of wall-hung and freestanding blocky geometric forms made of blue resin embedded with what appear to be stones, pieces of coral, or detritus. Formally, these spare forms suggest a rather irreverent homage to Minimalism, and especially to Donald Judd’s work, which Bickerton has addressed throughout his career. The surfaces and contents are more textured and complex; the works call to mind oceanographic specimens that one might find on display in a natural history museum. They also resemble the ocean as seen from an airplane or as gridded on a map. Some are nearly cubic in shape, with surface textures suggesting the water’s undulations and refraction of sunlight and slight shifts in the resin’s hues indicating variations in the sea’s depth. While these works seem to present placid views of the ocean, a glimmer of mortality persists. Furthering the subtle elegiac tone, a six-foot-tall freestanding work, 0°36’06.2″N, 131°09’41.8″E 1 (2022), resembles a coffin (as the artist noted in the same post on Instagram).
For a number of works in the “Ocean Chunk” series, Bickerton entangles or encases the resin blocks in elaborate accoutrements, treating the bits of apparently ossified ocean as ritual or talismanic objects. Hanging Ocean Chunk (To Be Dragged Up Cliff Faces, Strung Across Ravines, and Suspended From The Forest Canopy) 1 (2022), for instance, features a block set like a jewel within stainless steel bars. The assembly is suspended from the ceiling and entangled in climbing equipment, including ropes festooned with small flags of various nations. The work makes explicit the exhibition’s allusions to migration, border crossings, and entrapment.
Earlier works on view at O’Flaherty’s include several examples of Bickerton’s “Blue Man” series of large photos taken in elaborate setups in his studio, edited, and further embellished with paint, including Neon Bar and Red Scooter Nocturne (both 2010–11). The pieces have thick, elaborately hand-carved and stained wood frames (made with the help of local artisans) featuring the artist’s name embedded in the surface. The images of pairs and groups of grotesque figures, in some sense stereotypes with garish skin tones, counter an idealized view of tropical island living—certainly Gauguin’s images of Tahiti, for example. Instead, Bickerton offers scathing views of Western tourists, alluding to the vulgarity of that industry in Bali and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. In Red Scooter Nocturne, a corpulent blue male figure wearing only a gaudy sarong and campy sunglasses—a rather archetypal character who reappears in a number of works—rides a moped as two naked young women hold on to his waist for dear life, the trio speeding along some sleazy, neon-lit street. Still, the implications are, as ever, ambiguous, as the images suggest the ruin of what would otherwise be an island paradise—to which the artist seems to lay claim via his prominently plastered signatures.
The unrestrained excess in these pieces, not to mention the acerbic humor, contrasts with the cool demeanor and relative formal austerity of the Neo-Geo works that established Bickerton’s career in the 1980s, and with the comparatively subdued imagery and cerebral compositions of his latest works. Bickerton has landed somewhere in the middle, neither fully formal nor wholly critical—just at the edge of unease.